TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) – A volunteer who sheltered, fed and medically treated two illegal immigrants for several days in a house in a small Arizona town went on trial Wednesday for the second time in a month.
Scott Warren, a college instructor who was tried on misdemeanor charges earlier this month, is now facing two felony counts of harboring illegal aliens and one count of conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens. Each carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Warren’s trial started Wednesday in District Judge Raner Collins’ courtroom in Tucson.
In his opening statement Wednesday, Warren’s defense attorney Gregory Kuykendall said the felony case boils down to one issue.
“Did he intend to violate the law? That is the question,” Kuykendall said, adding that it was not Warren’s intent to break the law.
“He does it because, in Scott’s mind, people are people regardless of what their status is,” Kuykendall said.
Warren is a volunteer for No More Deaths, an Arizona-based advocacy organization that aims to stop the deaths undocumented immigrants in the desert near the U.S.-Mexico border.
He was arrested with two migrants – Kristian Perez-Villanueva and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday – on Jan. 17, 2018 at a small house volunteers call the “barn,” situated on the edge of Ajo, Arizona, a small desert town 40 miles north of the border. The house sits on a 5-acre property owned by a retired physician who lets No More Deaths use it, Kuykendall said.
From the barn, where pallets of donated food, clothing and water are stored, volunteers for the nonprofit humanitarian organization launch search and rescue efforts and recovery missions – the former to save lives and the latter to give closure to families whose loved ones died in the desert, the attorney said.
Border patrol agents started covertly watching the barn a few days before Warren’s arrest, after Villanueva and Godoy had arrived, Assistant U.S. Attorney Nathaniel Walters said in the prosecution’s brief opening statement.
Agents had heard from Ajo residents that they had found carpet “booties,” or scraps of carpet migrants tie onto their feet to blur footprints, and discarded black water jugs nearby. Both are tell-tale signs that undocumented migrants leave behind, Walters said.
As they watched the property, agents saw Warren come and go for several days, and eventually saw him gesture toward distant mountains, as if giving directions, Walters said.
“They believed the illegal aliens were about to flee, so they approached the barn,” he said.
One agent at the rear of the building locked eyes with Villanueva inside, who fled toward the front. Seconds later, the other agent appeared with Warren. The agents did an “immigration inspection,” questioning to determine Villanueva’s status, and determined he was in the country illegally. A search of the barn revealed Godoy, who admitted he was illegally in the U.S.
Warren followed No More Deaths protocols – written by doctors and lawyers – to ensure his work was safe and legal, Kuykendall said. He provided food, medical care, and water to people who were hungry, injured and thirsty from their 40-mile trek through the desert.
Despite Warren’s claim that he was simply helping hungry, thirsty men in distress, Walters said that security video from two gas stations will show a different story: that the men had bought food and drinks before they even got to the barn, where they also took selfies that show they were fine.
“They were not in distress,” Walters said.
Warren, 36, has called his work helping migrants a “spiritual calling” and based his misdemeanor trial defense, in part, on the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which includes a clause preventing Congress from passing laws that restrict religious freedom. Kuykendall touched on spirituality Wednesday, noting more than once that that No More Deaths is a ministry of the Universal Unitarian Church.
Warren was first arrested in 2017 and tried earlier this month on misdemeanor charges of operating a vehicle in a wilderness area and abandoning property – water jugs. That bench trial, also before Collins, lasted three days, and Collins has not yet issue a verdict.
The felony trial is scheduled for 10 days.